As first gigs go, it wasn’t that bad. From his secret lair beneath a hollowed-out volcano, SSL’s notorious Jack Baruth asked me to head to Las Vegas for a weekend. As a lifelong oval-track fan, I was on the plane before he had a chance to change his mind and send me to a minivan “first drive” instead. The trip didn’t disappoint; I had a chance to watch Kevin Harvick hammer out his thirty-fifth career Nationwide Series win, I saw and met a variety of celebrities of the NASCAR and non-NASCAR variety (see above photo) and I also attended a presentation on the new Pennzoil Ultra “full synthetic” motor oil.

The definition of “full synthetic” in the US is complex enough to rate its own Wikipedia page (and here it is) but all the information we could find indicates that Ultra is, in some or possibly all blends, a “Group III” synthetic. This means that, strictly speaking, it’s not a head-to-head Mobil 1 competitor. Ferrari has chosen the oil for factory fill, as Porsche did with Mobil 1 some time ago. However, oil formulations differ across national borders, so this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Pennzoil Ultra sitting on your AutoZone’s shelf is exactly the same stuff that is being poured into the 458 Italia.

The most interesting thing about Ultra, from my perspective, isn’t the Ferrari endorsement or the admittedly handsome packaging. Rather, it’s the explicit claim that the use of Ultra can prevent sludge formation and significantly clean existing sludge from engines. They’ve backed this testing with numbers, one oil-forum wonk to state that

“They improved the deposit control and improved the detergent system while retaining the very good Seq IVA performance. Throw in API SN and a Tbn of 13, and I think it’s an impressive oil. At least on paper. Specifications met are a good indication of quality. This oil has quality written all over it.”

As soon as we figure out what that means, we’ll let you know.

If something like this is sitting in your engine, chances are you have problems.

There was a time when “oil sludge” was considered to be equivalent to “muffler bearings”: something unethical mechanics told credulous customers about in order to empty their pockets of any loose change. No longer. Toyota has big sludge problems and has been forced to admit it. Volkswagen and Audi have also experienced similar issues. In an era where people expect their engines to last well beyond 100,000 miles with no special maintenance, oil sludge issues are haunting manufacturers and drivers. Pennzoil believes their Ultra can remove existing sludge, and they are handing out the results of rather specialized tests to anyone who asks.

The implications of this marketing strategy — that an oil manufacturer is targeting a product at drivers who inadvertently purchased a sludge-prone engine, or think they might be at risk — bear thinking about. As modern cars show more and more evidence of fundamental cost-cutting more and more drivers will be looking to the aftermarket to fix some of the engineering and manufacturing shortcuts taken in the name of profitability. For a long time, the self-performed oil change has been the province of the “car guy”, but how many “car guys” own four-cylinder Camrys?

I’ll go out on a limb and predict success for Ultra. It’s probably the right target at the right time. Regrettably, here at SSL we don’t own any Ferraris, and Jack’s infamous Neon racers all use Quaker State zero-weight, special-purpose racing oil, but this Ultra might be just the ticket for a front-running Lemons racer. Does anybody out there want to put a little Ferrari in their Solara?

Full Disclosure as required by the lovely FTC: This trip was sponsored by Pennzoil, however all opinions are solely those of the author.

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Douglas Madden

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